Recently, I watched an episode of a 2011 historical Korean TV drama, Warrior Baek Dong Soo. Set in the mid-1700s, there’s a scene where a defeated Chinese villain says to a Korean martial artist: “Someone so highly skilled in martial arts…How can he stay in this little Joseon (i.e., Korea)?” The Korean retorts, “It has been said that for five thousand years, more than half of the land that Qing (China) now possesses belonged to Joseon.”
Although a huge exaggeration of history, as a drama for a national audience, it nonetheless gave powerful expression for me to the idea of reestablishing one Korea, as a strong and cohesive nation that cannot be intimidated by China. Reunification is also the only way to avoid the perpetuation of separate Korean identities on the peninsula; reconstituting a single national identity is a profoundly serious matter after 67 years of division.
For reunification to occur, absent a collapse of the North, neither Korea can simply get its way – both would have to abandon concepts intrinsic to their societies and systems in order to forge a nation bigger than the sum of its parts. They would each need to embrace a larger vision of themselves as a people who occupy the whole Korean peninsula (and at the height of the ancient Gorguryo kingdom, who lived in much of present-day northeast China as well; ever watch Jumong?).
They first need a common idea of independent Korean nationhood, something which they have not experienced since at least 1945, if not 1910 when Japan annexed Korea. And in the 21st century, a united Korea cannot settle to become a modern tributary state of China. Koreans, North and South, need to expand their concepts of who they are to realize the greater good it will bring them to be one strong nation, and the value this will contribute to Asia as a whole.
Of course, for years during the Cold War, each Korea maintained it was the true Korea. Even maps of the peninsula you find in the North or South show one peninsula, with the DMZ hardly discernable, if at all. But that is posturing. Right now, North and South Korea seem more intent on prolonging division, and China sustains that status quo (see my recent piece on “Korean Reunification Would Cast Off China’s Shadow”.
Each Korea employs a short-sighted national strategy, and China, their neighbor, profits most from their division. Look at Egypt, at Libya, at Syria and Myanmar right now. My point is less that they are throwing off a legacy of dictatorship, but that these times may simply no longer sustain models of governance that exploit their populations and create weak nations which cannot contribute to the well-beings of their neighborhoods.
It seems to me, the second decade of the 21st century is teaching us that entirely new models of governance inevitably must displace the unsustainable older models of authoritarianism, and social and economic injustice. I believe that would also mean long divided states need to reevaluate who they really are and should be.
It’s from this standpoint that I was struck by President Obama’s remarks in Seoul on March 26 this year:
“To the leaders of Pyongyang I say, this is the choice before you. This is the decision that you must make. Today we say, Pyongyang, have the courage to pursue peace and give a better life to the people of North Korea. … No two places follow the same path, but this much is true: The currents of history cannot be held back forever. The deep longing for freedom and dignity will not go away. So, too, on this divided peninsula. The day all Koreans yearn for will not come easily or without great sacrifice. But make no mistake, it will come. And when it does, change will unfold that once seemed impossible. And checkpoints will open and watchtowers will stand empty, and families long separated will finally be reunited. And the Korean people, at long last, will be whole and free.”
I don’t read Obama’s remarks as simply applicable to Pyongyang, for the North to be the only one to change. Yes, it’s about freedom. But equally as important, I see Obama’s words as a challenge to all Koreans, North and South, to embrace a larger concept of who they really are, to think more highly of the integrity of the entire Korean people as a nation, and to start promptly on the path toward that larger goal, a reunified Korea. For the wrong reasons, North Koreans may have a stronger yearning for reunification than their countrymen in the South, but how do we regard the much larger population in the South that simply doesn’t want to think about unification because of the difficulties they will surely bear?
Reunification must be a win-win situation for the two Koreas, a negotiated solution in which each contributes to positive change in the peninsula. Unification cannot be the victory of one side over the other, of conquest and capitulation. North and South will have to give up their Cold War dreams. Nor can the North Korean architects of Juche and the system that governs their country be shamed by the South, since their enterprise has to be seen in the context of the communist experiment that engulfed much of the world for most of the 20th century (which failed but the North’s leaders won’t admit that). The North has to be convinced it will participate as a genuine partner in the creation of a new Korea.
Neither Korea can proudly stand before the world without the other; a reunited Korea will not be formed with one Korea alienated from its partner. True unification must come from their historical greatness and demanded by the masses of Koreans from both South and North.
South Korean political and economic leaders may fear from potential unification the loss of their wealth and an end to continued economic growth, but this should be wisely negotiated. Likewise, North Korea’s elite may fear it would become destitute and be at the mercy of South Korea’s intentions, but this has to be prudently negotiated as well. The real task of reunification is to give up natural, selfish tendencies (self-interest) for a greater Korea of the future.
Korean reunification should not be about compromises, but about a mutual leap upward to a new level. Kim Jong Un just showed the world he is married, and now a mature adult by traditional Korean standards. With many years ahead of him, he is in the position to either try to maintain an unsustainable system, or gear his society for that upward leap where the North and South can amalgamate into a new Korean nation that looks to the future, not the past. The presumptive candidates for this year’s ROK presidential elections are in a similar position, to make-do and tweak the old ways as their objective, or fundamentally reevaluate South Korea’s situation and lead its citizens to a new level that will owe less to the past and more to embracing new ways of thinking of their national identity.
Next July is the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. Why let Korean division linger into another decade by default? Let the U.S. and China work with the two Koreas toward a permanent peace agreement, and the two Koreas should hold a summit by that anniversary, beginning the process of acting as one people with their collective national dignity.
Recently, I watched an episode of a 2011 historical Korean TV drama, Warrior Baek Dong Soo. Set in the mid-1700s, there’s a scene where a defeated Chinese villain says to a Korean martial artist: “Someone so highly skilled in martial arts...How can he stay in this little Joseon (i.e., Korea)?” The Korean retorts, “It has been said that for five thousand years, more than half of the land
Dr. Mark P. Barry is an independent Asian affairs analyst who has followed U.S. - DPRK relations for the past 22 years. He visited North Korea twice and met the late President Kim Il Sung in 1994, and has appeared on CNN to discuss North Korea. From 2005-06, he helped found and direct the Asia Pacific Peace Institute in Washington, DC. He also assisted the convening of the first-ever meeting of legislators from China and Taiwan in Tokyo in June 1989, under the auspices of the International Security Council. Dr. Barry has spoken on U.S.-DPRK relations before the Korean Political Science Association, Korea Institute of National Unification, and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, among others. He received his Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and his M.A. in national security studies from Georgetown University. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in international relations and global management, and is also associate editor of the International Journal on World Peace quarterly.